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Transforming Urban Food Systems

Leveraging technology and human ingenuity to transform urban food systems into regenerative, nourishing and equitable places that thrive.

Photo of Kavya Raman
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

The News School, Parsons School of Design

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.


Website of Legally Registered Entity

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

New York City

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

New York City (NYC) including all five boroughs: 783.8 sq km (302.6 sq miles)

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

New York is a city of transplants, attracting people from across the globe who are drawn to the city's magnetic promise of opportunity. This is reflected in our team. Despite dramatically different backgrounds, our experiences brought us together at graduate school in heart of the city, where we are pursuing a degree in Strategic Design and Management. As any New Yorker quickly learns, the city represents a duality of extremes. It's unforgiving but unforgettable. It offers every imaginable convenience, while being extraordinarily difficult to afford. The rich sit next to the poor on the subway. Luxury homes share walls with decrepit properties overflowing with garbage. The city chews you up and spits you out but there's no place else you'd rather call home. As New Yorkers, we love the city for being a cultural melting pot for the palate. From street vendors selling churros to fine dining restaurants that charge over $500 a plate, every cuisine is within reach. Whether you're a hungry worker or an experience seeker, New Yorkers experience connections to food every second of every day. Overwhelming and desensitizing in its abundance, food is everywhere: Organic food markets, high-end grocery stores, low-end grocery stores, delis, farmers markets, convenience stores, food stalls, public schools, food trucks, food banks, late-night food, urban agriculture, community gardens, home cooks, food delivery services...the list goes on. Among our team, many of us have worked in the food industry, and all of us have participated in New York's food system as community gardeners, community-supported agriculture (CSA) members, and eaters, making us an integral part of New York's complex food system.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

New York City's (NYC) duality of extremes makes it place of opportunities and constraints. Throughout the city one can find countless examples of creative culinary expression, from dynamic small businesses that serve ever-evolving neighborhoods to volunteer initiatives that address their communities' needs. New Yorkers are known for being busy, ambitious and industrious. The city's density makes it an excellent market for food ventures: From entrepreneurs to eaters, there is a shared dream of achieving whatever is possible. However, the contradictory dynamics of the city lend itself to being highly regulated in some ways but completely unregulated in others. NYC is a place where you can truly get anything from anywhere - however, although everything is accessible, it also has a cost. NYC is also extremely diverse, both culturally and economically. Many communities within NYC boast a wealth of agricultural and culinary expertise; bringing influences, tradition, and knowledge from around the world. New Yorkers come from many different walks of life and may experience the city very differently, yet still share some fundamental experiences that are common to all New Yorkers. According to a 2001 study by Claritas, four of the city's five boroughs ranked among the nation's twenty most diverse counties (Source: Claritas). In addition, the culinary industry is deeply engrained part of NYC's food culture - many people eat out for both convenience and pleasure, and you'll find world-renowned ethnic cuisine next door to elite Michelin-starred restaurants. Because of this, we feel NYC is a wonderful microcosm to explore the diversity of our food system's challenges. NYC's climate has four distinct seasons. Typically, locally grown produce is harvested between June and November with some crops available earlier in the year or during all seasons with indoor or four-season growing technology. That being said, with the city's incredibly socio-cultural diversity, virtually any kind of food is available in the city, if one knows where to look! Urban agriculture has historically been an important part of the fabric of many NYC communities; community gardens have been started in vacant land, advocated for, and some are now protected by land trusts and the city. There is also a burgeoning urban agriculture industry, as evidenced by both scaling, venture-backed startups as well as smaller, more community-rooted initiatives. Farmers' markets have a strong presence in more affluent parts of the city - the world-famous Union Square Greenmarket began with just a few farmers in 1976, and has grown exponentially; in peak season 140 regional farmers, fishers, and bakers sell their products to a dedicated legion of city dwellers (Source: Union Square Greenmarket).

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

New York City's (NYC) current food system is inequitable, wasteful and harmful despite a wealth of knowledge that would allow us to transform this system to one that is regenerative, nourishing and sustainable for all. Current and future challenges include: - Loss of farmland, water pollution, high energy usage/cost, emissions, and waste. Farmland that exists is rapidly being lost to development and environmental degradation, putting increasing pressure on remaining farmland.(Source: Foodworks) In an urban setting, it is even more challenging to sustain community gardens which are under threat of re-appropriation for property development - New York City has no landfills or incinerators. Residents produce 12,000 tons of waste every day. Exporting garbage to other communities cost city taxpayers $290 million in 2007. NYC residents currently only recycle only about 17% of their total waste. 7.5% of New York's waste stream consists of plastic film such as supermarket bags and 27% is comprised of food waste. (Source: Grow NYC & USDA). - New York's high cost of living invariably impacts food choices, access & diet as people make food purchasing decisions based on what they can afford. In what may initially appear to be a culture of plenty, it is estimated that 1.4 million New Yorkers live in households that cannot afford an adequate supply of nutritious food. Hunger is not due to a lack of supply, but rather an inability to purchase food. (Source: USDA food insecurity data) - The culture of how people eat and consume food is tied to convenience, individualism and cost. New Yorkers rarely have the time (or kitchen space) to cook and eat together on a daily basis. What's more, this culture of convenience and individualism sustains a market for single-serve cheap food that may be attractive to busy New Yorkers, but carries a hidden cost as cheap food is often low in nutritional content and creates unnecessary packaging waste. - Three of the five leading causes of mortality in NYC can be linked to diet: heart disease, stroke, and diabetes (Source: NYC Department of Health & Mental Hygiene) - Because New York's urban food production capacity is limited, last mile logistics carry a high environmental cost in terms in green house gas emissions associated with food distribution and delivery. - Despite a plethora of food options, NYC's food system has hidden inequalities for food workers and poorer families, many of whom are underrepresented, underpaid and exploited. Furthermore, the rise of technology and the gig economy is rapidly changing the nature of work, displacing jobs across the food system. In a regulatory environment where there is a lack of equity, diversity and civic engagement, current food policies are not representative of all New Yorkers. With the city's population projected to surpass 9 million by 2050 (Source: One NYC 2050), these challenges are only likely to intensify, unless immediate steps are taken to address the same.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our vision will address identified challenges in the following ways: - By leveraging urban spaces to grow more food locally and sustainably, our vision seeks to transform NYC's urban food system into one that is circular by design. We believe this will address several of the environmental challenges previously outlined, including: food waste, high transportation and distribution costs, emissions, environmental degradation and energy usage. - To address convenience, cost, and access barriers, we aspire to make locally-grown, nourishing, wholesome food a staple (instead of a luxury) for all New Yorkers. Our vision seeks to leverage under-utilized urban spaces for food production and preparation, including rooftops, parks, private/public spaces and schools. - To address the current culture of convenience and individualism, our vision proposes mandatory gardening as community service to bring New Yorkers together in the service of their communities, with the added benefit of re-connecting with one another in a city that can be socially isolating. - To address challenges of inequality and technological disruptions across the food system, our vision seeks to create job security in urban farming and logistics, while supporting affordable access to nourishing food for lower income families. - To address the challenges of land use, lack of diversity and poor representation in policy making, our vision seeks to subsidize the cost of urban agriculture through government policy that is equitable, representative, and financed through taxation. In our vision, neighborhoods have voting rights over how local gardens are run & what is grown - reflecting the cultural diversity of NYC's neighborhoods.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

In a landscape where populations are concentrated in large urban centers like NYC where food cannot necessarily be grown locally, or all year-round, how might we envision a regenerative and nourishing food futures (for 2050)? Our vision seeks to make locally-grown, nourishing, wholesome food a staple, instead of a luxury for all New Yorkers. Taxpayer-supported urban farming operations will occupy under-utilized spaces and supply the majority of the city's food, supplemented by the a thriving network of farms in rural surroundings. New York's agricultural community will sustain New Yorkers year-round, and fresh food will be a right for all. While food production spaces will primarily be managed by professional farmers, employed as public servants, there will also be community spaces for individuals, families, and communities to grow their own food. Whether one's food is prepared at home, in a restaurant, or through another venue, the ingredients will be primarily from within 100 miles.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

New York City (NYC) represents a microcosm of our global food system, a duality of extremes that is both wondrous and toxic. The city's density makes it an excellent market for food ventures: Throughout the city one can find countless examples of creative culinary expression, from high-end grocery stores and fine dining restaurants to dynamic small businesses, street vendors and volunteer initiatives that serve ever-evolving neighborhoods and local communities. The city’s diversity is best reflected in its neighbourhoods, a cornucopia and melting pot of agricultural and culinary expertise, tradition, and knowledge from around the world. With the city's rich socio-cultural miscellany, virtually any kind of food is available, if one knows where to look! NYC is a place where you can truly get anything from anywhere, a Disneyland for the palate - however, although everything is accessible, it also has a cost. Behind its culinary paradise lurks a food system that is wasteful, unhealthy, exploitative, inequitable, and extractive. A culture of convenience has eclipsed a culture of community, meaningful engagement and civic participation. 

Our vision seeks to transform New York City’s eclectic, vibrant urban food system into one that is also circular by design. By working with city and state government to gain access to under-utilized urban spaces (as well as spaces that are currently utilized for environmentally-unfriendly activities, like driving and parking) to grow more food locally and sustainably, our vision turns NYC into a city that can produce the majority of the ingredients needed to sustain its diverse residents within its city limits. Spaces like rooftops, public parks, vacant lots, underutilized roads, and parking areas will be transformed into regenerative, food-producing micro-ecosystems. These public micro-farms will include systems for compost, rainwater collection and purification, as well as pollinator habitats and aquaponic systems. While community gardens and other urban agriculture initiatives have existed in the city for decades, our vision combines publicly-supported infrastructure, citywide coordination, and widespread civic involvement to scale urban agriculture to become the city’s major food source. 

We believe that transforming NYC into a city that produces, rather than imports, the majority of its food will address several of the environmental challenges previously outlined, including: food waste, high transportation and distribution costs, emissions, environmental degradation and energy usage. Proximity to locations where fresh food is processed (restaurants, commercial kitchens, community meal centers) and to end consumers will reduce the distance food has to travel and hence the environmental costs of fossil-fueled distribution. 

Our vision for a transformed city food system is not merely logistical; it involves cultural and civic change. We envision mandatory gardening as as a requirement for every New York City resident. The goal of community service is to ensure that all eaters have an equal opportunity and exposure to engage in the production of their food, the civic process of planning, and sharing stewardship and oversight of local food systems and community. Bringing New Yorkers together in the service of their communities allows people to reconnect with the food they eat by partaking in how it is grown. This will create a deeper common appreciation for the value of food, and where it comes from, while satisfying the human need for community, connection with the land and one another. More importantly, by providing equal opportunity and access to the system that produces their food, this gives New Yorkers a physical stake and ownership in their food system, one where people play an informed and active role in decision making through shared responsibility and stewardship. Community service has the added benefit of re-connecting neighbors with one another in a city that can be socially isolating. 

Another important aspect of our vision involves not only how food is grown, but how it is consumed. In addition to supplying produce for food businesses and residents who cook at home, public micro-farms will supply Community Meal Centers -- publicly subsidized community kitchens where residents can share communally-prepared meals with their neighbors. Each Community Meal Center’s kitchen will be managed by locally-appointed chefs who can design and scale recipes that are built around the seasonal ingredients available nearby, while reflecting the unique cultural makeup of their neighborhood. 

Our vision seeks to create job security in urban farming and logistics, while supporting affordable access to nourishing food for all individuals and families regardless of income. While a city-centric model of food distribution will invariably displace some jobs in transportation logistics and other commercial, large-scale models of farming and food distribution; our vision re-structures those jobs into participants in a more densely planned sustainable urban food system. The system will require publicly-funded/taxpayer-supported positions in urban farming, aquaponics, water-collection & system management, compost system management, and zero-emission “last-mile” transportation and logistics. Our vision includes paid apprenticeship programs that will train new generations in regenerative food production careers as well as support training and job placement for those transitioning from other careers in less sustainable sectors. Smaller-scale growing is inherently more human-resource intensive than larger-scale, mechanized food production. Therefore, additional jobs will need to be created, the cost of which will be offset by the reduction in costs of environmental degradation and public health problems from heavy dependence on a fossil-fueled food system. 

Our vision seeks to subsidize the cost of urban agriculture through government policy that is equitable, representative, and financed through taxation. In our vision, neighbourhoods have voting rights over how local gardens are run & what is grown - reflecting the cultural diversity of NYC's neighbourhoods. City policy will mandate that barriers to access are removed. Families and individuals will have the option to choose subsidized memberships to their local micro-farm that is based on their income and ability to pay. Urban farms will also supply publicly-subsidized meals that are delivered through schools, after-school programs, community meal centers, and other institutions; while surplus produce will be marketed to for-profit restaurants and food manufacturers. While city and state policy will mandate affordability based on income and taxpayer-funded subsidies, localized decisions such as what combination of crops will be grown, etc. can be made at the discretion of local residents, who will all have a vote in their local farm. 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Photo of Sofia Lopez Nunez

Hi Kavya Raman , great to see you joining the Prize!
We noticed your submission is missing responses in some questions. Feel free to make continue making changes and update it until January 31, 2020. We'd love to see a more developed version! This will help the community provide you with feedback and possibly even collaborate with you.

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